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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Walking the Adventure Path

by Ken Newquist / August 12, 2012

It's been a year and a half since we started Paizo's Second Darkness adventure path. The first two books -- The Shadow in the Sky and Children of the Void are done. The characters are 5th level and the third book -- The Armageddon Echo -- is on hold while they level up to the recommended 6th.

As I mentioned in my kickoff post for the campaign, I'd never run an Adventure Path before, and I wasn't sure how well it would work with my group, which is used to a more free-form style of campaign. It worked pretty well -- my players seem to be enjoying the story, and we've had some memorable combats and fun social confrontations. The players have been able to just enough world-building feel like it's our game, rather than someone else's.

Shortcut to the Finish Line

The Player Characters have also done an excellent job of bypassing large chunks of the adventure in Books 1 and 2. It's to be expected; both volumes include a good deal of free form adventuring, and doesn't railroad people down a particular path (well, not any more than having an overarching plot compels people to continue on with the story).

Originally, I thought this might be a problem, at least from a prep perspective. The PCs weren't keeping up, experience and treasure-wise, and had to throw in a few of my own one shot adventures in order to catch them up (as well as using the side adventure from The Shadow in the Sky. That led to more game prep then I'd expected, but it let me get might hands dirty with adventure design.

Right now I'm writing my own "Book 2.5" because the players raced through Book 2 by avoiding about half the encounters. The campaign has a logical break point at 5th level -- they actually included an "off level" for GMs to do exactly what I'm doing, and let characters run free for a bit before plunging into the rest of the campaign.

I like the idea of the break, but the problem is that the cliffhanger at the end of Book 2 -- which saw our antagonists escaping off into the sunset with the knowledge they need to destroy the world -- isn't conducive to sitting on your thumbs for a few weeks. Re-jiggering the plot a bit fixed that problem (the end of the world's been put off for a few weeks), and now the players are on a dragon-hunting expedition.

It's a nice change of pace. I love being a game master and writing up new adventures, but lately I haven't had the time to do it. That's a big part of what led us to the adventure path in the first place, but while I've enjoyed Second Darkness more than I thought I would, I still get the itch to write my own adventures. This break, as well as other similar pauses in Book 1, let me get at that itch without having to script and entire campaign.

Look, Shiny!

Looking ahead, I don't know if I'll continue filling in the blanks with side adventures. While I like being able to take a turn at writing, I don't know that we have the time for it. We've got 4 books left -- assuming about 3 months per book, plus another month or two thrown in for holidays and such -- we'll likely finish up in August or September of 2013.

I like that pacing, as it puts us inline with a potential D&D Next release late next summer (and -- hopefully -- a playtest campaign). Even if we decide to start another adventure path or a homegrown campaign, two and a half year seems like a good run for a campaign.

This assumes we stick to the schedule, but if I continue to write side adventures to catch up the characters, we could find the campaign stretching out to 2014. Given prior experience, I think that's problematic for our group. Our attention tends to start wandering after two years in a campaign as newer and cooler adventures, settings, and ideas cross our path.

This isn't a criticism of the group -- I think it's hard to maintain enthusiasum for any game that runs 2+ years. The key is to acknowledge that, and pace the campaign accordingly.

Adventure Prep

As I said, one of the major reasons for running Second Darkness was to cut down on game master prep time. I was concerned that converting Second Darkness from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder was going to be too time consuming, but ultimately how much time you spend on it depends on how anal rententive you want to be. The only work that you really need to do for the old stat blocks is figuring out the Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense. These are used in tandem to replace the old D&D morass of grapple/trip/disarm/etc, and they're easy enough to calculate.

The rest of it is easy enough to fudge. Sure, the old D&D skill ranks are probably a little under powered compared to Pathfinder, since things like "Spot" and "Listen" were combined into "Perception", but its not worth it to me to go and rebuild an NPC so that things are perfect. There is a legitimate concern that some of the old D&D 3.5 NPCs are underpowered relative to their Pathfinder equivelents thanks to the added class features in the new game, but I can rebalance that by throwing in another monster or two.

I'm willing to handwave this because NPC creation is one of my least-favorite parts of the game. It's not that much more arduous than D&D 3.5 ... but I was tired of creating new NPCs in D&D. Pathfinder has a few tools for creating player characters -- notably sCoreForge, Yet Another Pathfinder Character Generator and Hero Lab -- but I've found each of them to be clunky in their own special ways. My solution to this problem has been to ignore it; whereever possible I use pre-gen NPCs from Paizo's GameMastery Guide or from the core rule book. Creating a new NPC from scratch is an option of last resort.

The monsters themselves are a non-issue. Pathfinder has three bestiaries under its belt and I can find almost every converted monster I need within their pages.

There are a few areas where Pathfinder has come up short. For some reason the rules for random encounters have been dropped from the core rule book -- the tables are still there, but the actual rules are gone. Not a big deal since I could look up the missing rules in my D&D Dungeon Master's Guide, but annoying. I'm also finding a profound lack of interesting terrain options in Pathfinder; Star Wars was all about setting up interesting environmental challenges and skillful options for players, but in Pathfinder there are only a smattering of pages dedicated to the subject.

Something else I'm missing are skill challenges; we used these to great effect in Star Wars, but there's no corresponding mechanic in Pathfinder. It's something I'd like to look into further for my game.